July, 2024

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Issue #178

Welcome, Western Fans!

Looking for free, tantalizing Tales of the Old West?
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Read this month's Tales and vote for your favorite.
They'll appear in upcoming print volumes of The Best of Frontier Tales Anthologies!

My Birthday
by Richard L. Newman
When Jamie and his Pa go up into the mountains hunting bighorn for Jamie's birthday, things turn quickly—and violently—in an unforeseen direction.

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Rebel Renegade, Johnny Grey
by James Burke
Johnny Grey thought he could forget the Civil War out on the frontier, but the war found him! Now he must run, hide, and fight with tooth and nail. Oh, and a whole lot of bullets if he hopes to shake his Red-Leg pursuers.

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Excerpt from Boetticher's Official Guide to Gunslinging
by Jon Gluckman
A novice gunslinger devotes himself to following the guidelines of a manual on how to behave as a gunslinger, and he narrates his exploits.

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Mountain Mail Runner, February 1859
by Moss Springmeyer
A loser in the Gold Rush, Jack has triumphed as a frontiersman on a hazardous mountain mail run. But when a blizzard strikes, will he have what it takes to survive?

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Tales of Old Joe
by Phillip R. Eaton
Joe Bartholomew survived the Civil War only to return home to more tragedy. When he finds that his family and his home have been destroyed, he heads west. Every day he is faced with new challenges in his search for tranquility.

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The Phantom Marksman
by Ralph S. Souders
The legend of a mysterious sharpshooter thrives within the town. Over time, he becomes a folk hero revered throughout the region. Everyone has an opinion as to his identity, but only one person is privy to the truth.

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Want all of this month's Western stories at once? Click here –

All the Tales

Rebel Renegade, Johnny Grey
by James Burke

Johnny Grey hissed in pain as a bullet grazed his neck. His hand, which instinctively shot up to grasp it, only agitated the pain. He felt warm wetness in his fingers, but not much. All he could do was keep on galloping. The young stallion grunted and groaned as he trampled on. Bullets zipped past, some grazed the beast's rump, prompting whinnies and sudden bursts of dwindling energy. But it wouldn't last. Less than a mile to the treeline! Johnny spurred the mount, unmoved by the creature's misery. He had to keep galloping! Bullets continued to swarm all around him. If not for the gunshots and stench of gunpowder behind him, Johnny might have mistaken them for horse flies! He chanced a backwards glance, and very quickly wished he hadn't. A dozen Red-Legs were hot on his heels! At their head galloped the sneering, bearded, Hans Becker. Even from a hundred yards back Johnny could see the murder in his eyes. He'd seen the same murder in Fritz Becker's eyes earlier. Shaking the bitter memory from his head, he turned back to the treeline at front. He was almost there!

"YOU'RE A DEAD MAN, GREY!" the older Becker brother roared. Another shot zipped past, stinging Johnny's ear. The last of his nerves failing, Johnny took a deadly gamble. He drew his Colt from its holster, turned to aim for the glaring eyes of Hans Becker, and fired. The bullet ripped a gulch through the Red-Leg's cheek, dying his beard even redder with blood, but the chief foe still lived. Johnny cursed himself for wasting the last round in the cylinder. He had his powder-horn and more shots, but reloading was a timely process. Holstering the pistol, he felt for his Bowie knife. The big blade at his side had frightened away plenty of unsavory characters in the past. But a dozen armed bushwhackers, one of them fueled by vengeance, would need more convincing. Maybe once he got into the trees it'd give him a chance. Plenty of trees and bushes to soak up bullets and throw off marksmen. Still won't be much good with him all by his lonesome. He prayed the rumors he'd heard back at the tavern were true.

Soon the constant swarm of bullets ceased but the oncoming rumble of hooves gave Johnny little hope that they'd lost interest. Turning, he saw the Red-Legs clumsily replace their spent cylinders with loaded ones. The hail of bullets resumed and again Johnny cursed himself. In the future he'd always keep a few extra loaded cylinders on him! If indeed he had a future! His entire reason for moving out there to the fringes of the Missouri-Kansas border was to create his future. But even if he survived the day that future would never be what he'd hoped for. The younger Becker brother had made sure of that.

Johnny shook the flood of emotions from his mind. He needed a cool head, now more than ever. The storm of blazing guns and zipping bullets intensified as he closed in on the trees. Wood chips and tree bark burst and scattered as hot lead followed Johnny into the forest. Curses rang out as the Red-Legs charged in after their prey. The stallion whinnied and defiantly slowed down. Johnny knew better than to get mad, the beast had no choice. The path between the trees was narrow and winding. Any more than trotting could lead to a lethal collision. The Red-Legs' mounts would do the same. Apart from his pursuers and himself, the forest seemed deserted. A seemingly endless maze of wood and shadows.

"I guess the rumors were wrong!" Johnny grunted aloud. He was over a hundred yards into the trees and not a soul to be seen. "Guess I'll have to rescue myself," he huffed before reining his mount to a halt. Swiftly sliding off he smacked the stallion's rump, sending it trampling off with a whinny. He flattened himself against the thickest tree in sight, drew his Bowie knife and tried his best to breathe silently.

"Where is he?" echoed the voice of Hans Becker. Sounded a way off.

"HE'S SOMEWHERE IN HERE, WE'LL FIND HIM!" shouted another Red-Leg, sounding much closer. Moments later the thud of hooves on dirt approached Johnny's tree. Sensing the motion just in time, he reached out and grabbed the bushwhacker by the belt and dragged him from the saddle. The two of them sprawled in the dirt. Johnny rolled atop the stunned foe and buried his blade in the man's throat.

"Found me, you mangy varmint!" he spat in the fading eyes of the dying Red-Leg. After wiping his blade on the dead man's shirt he fished the Colt from the foe's belt and lunged for the nearest tree for cover. More hoof-beats approached.

"JASPER?" another Red-Leg called out with a country twang. "JASPER, WHERE'D YOU GET TO?" Johnny grinned darkly to learn the name of the second man he'd ever killed. Instants later Jasper's horse fussed and trotted off. The oncoming Red-Leg reined his mount to a halt. "JASPER! WHY'D YOU GET OFF YOUR HORSE?"

"Here's why!" Johnny growled as leapt from behind his tree and threw his Bowie knife at the Red-Leg's neck with all his might. The projectile hit home, knocking the bushwhacker from his mount with a gasping gurgle. No sooner had the flailing figure landed than Johnny rushed up to retrieve his knife and loot the dead man's revolver. More voices echoed through the trees and Johnny took cover behind another tree. He quickly removed and checked the cylinders of both looted pistols. One had four rounds left, the other three. A bitter sigh escaped his lips.

"Well done, Johnny!" he huffed to himself. "Now it's only ten against one and you have just enough bullets to make it three against one, if you don't miss!" The deafening blast of a pistol and a shower of wood and bark mere inches from his head cut Johnny off. He stumbled to the dirt with a gasp.

"SHOOT! WHO WAS THAT? SETH, IS IT YOU?" the Red-Leg called out timidly. Thinking quickly, Johnny remembered the country twang of his last kill.

"DARN RIGHT IT'S ME, YOU BLAZING HALF-WIT!" Johnny hissed in the best impression he could manage, wincing that it probably wasn't good enough.

"AW HELL AND DAMNATION! I'M SORRY, SETH! THOUGHT FOR SURE YOU WAS THAT VARMINT WHAT KILLED FRITZ!" the Red-Leg's voice was almost a whimper as he trotted his mount closer. Johnny smirked, the man really was a half-wit! He casually got to his feet just as the bushwhacker approached, brought up one of his pistols and took aim. The half-wits eyes widened as they gazed down the barrel to meet Johnny's.

"I forgive you," Johnny said before pulling the trigger. The idiot's horse darted with the shot, his body slumping limp to the dirt. As he looted the Red-Leg's gun, he congratulated his own marksmanship. A clean shot between the eyes, the face frozen in surprise at his blunder. A hail of bullets tore into the trees and bushes around Johnny. Some of them grazed his arms, prompting him to curse his own blunder; staying in one place!

With a pistol in either hand, Johnny shot up and shot back wildly as he loped deeper into the woods. A lucky shot struck a horse, causing it to topple over. Its rider wailed in agony, his red-wrapped leg probably crushed beneath the animal's weight. A less lucky shot struck a Red-Leg's left arm. Only giving its owner all the more reason to spray lead with his right arm. Johnny began zigzagging through the trees as his attackers pursued. Kept the mounted foes constantly shifting in the narrow spaces between trees. Hans Becker appeared on his stallion, trampling to the head of the pursuers. Seeing his chance, Johnny paused to aim both pistols and fired in unison. One bullet struck a branch, the other blew off his village cap. Uncovered, his face was even more startlingly red with bloodshot fury. Resuming his mad dash, Johnny fired both revolvers again. His left weapon clicked empty, but the other knocked a Red-Leg from his horse with a bullet to the chest. Tossing away the spent pistol he began to reach for the third one shoved in his belt but stopped short. Looking back as he weaved between trees, he noticed his foes were keeping close together. Colliding with each other and cursing as they struggled through the undergrowth after their prey. A dark grin spread Johnny's lips as he took hold of his powder horn. It just might work!

Hot lead hissed after him, tree bark sprinkling his shirt as he drew a handkerchief from his pocket and stuffed it into his powder horn. Pulled his last match and struck it on a tree as he passed. He quickly put the flaring Lucifer to the handkerchief, it caught flame quickly. Johnny uttered a quick prayer for success as he flung the powder horn backwards towards the oncoming Red-Legs. Cries of horror went up instants before the blast shook the world to its foundations. The force flung Johnny forward onto his face, but he sprang to his feet with the agility of a wildcat! Surprising even himself. Chancing a glance back, he saw at least three unmounted horses run off. The ringing in his ears quickly died down for curses and oaths to be heard behind him. Either injured or angry. Johnny ran all the faster, in no hurry to find out which. He couldn't recall how many bullets were left in either remaining pistol, and didn't want to find that out either. Was Becker killed in the blast? If so, would the others give up? Maybe. None of them had lost a brother. Unless Jasper or Seth had brought their brothers along. Johnny cursed the thought as he ran.

He burst through a passel of brush and paused to find himself in a clearing. A concealed meadow in the woods, the eye of the storm. A fresh volley of pistol shots burst from the trees and Johnny was once again running for his life. About a hundred yards to the trees at the far end of the meadow. Too far! He drew both pistols and prepared for his last stand. Spinning around on his heel, he fired both weapons. A return volley knocked him on his back before the smoke had settled. Searing pain blazed in his right shoulder and left waist. Triumphant cheers and vulgar insults went up from his victorious foes. He no longer felt the revolvers in his hands. Shoot, they wouldn't do him any good. The slightest movement brought crippling pain. Soon four sneering faces looked down on him. Johnny coughed harshly. His attempt at a laugh, knowing he had killed all but four!

"Got ya, didn't we you mangy Reb!" spat a skinny Red-Leg who looked like a shaved weasel.

"Thought you was pretty clever with that little gunpowder trick?" chuckled a fat one with a hat too small for his head. "You slavers always did have a high opinion of yourselves!" Johnny tried to say he'd never owned any slaves, but only another cough came out. Prompting a round of laughter from three of his foes. Becker's face was straight as a rail and cold as ice. His eyes shone like hot coals after a long burn.

"You shot the wrong man's brother, Reb," Becker growled.

"Your brother shot the wrong man's wife!" Johnny managed to growl back. The beautiful face of Mrs. Claire Grey flashed before his eyes. His childhood playmate who grew to be his sweetheart. The woman he had eloped with to make his way in the world as a man. Her long black hair, warm smile, and gentle voice had always been a comfort to him. A new wave of pain engulfed Johnny as the weight of her death, barely an hour ago, finally hit him. The crack of Fritz Becker's Colt snapped in his ear, the sight of Claire's limp body, a hole blown through her forehead, her beautiful eyes gazing lifeless up to heaven. Johnny could only growl in defiance as tears flooded his eyes. His face burned with rage as the Red-Legs laughed mirthlessly.

"That Cherokee tramp?" Becker paused to spit. "Shoot! Them savages cast their lot with you Rebs. Suppose it's only natural. Them Injuns was trading their own kind in bondage before you and yours even started importing blacks to pick your filthy cotton! Them dainty little squaws like yours always love to smile and bat them eye-lashes. Ain't none of them ever fooled me for a second! Shoot! My brother done you a favor! And how'd you repay him? A bullet in his back!" Johnny wanted so badly to tell him Claire and hers never owned slaves. Fact was their tribe was divided, about half of had sided with the Union. But knew better then to waste his breath, no reasoning with a mad dog!

"Good of you to turn and face the music at the end there though," Becker brought up his revolver. "Only one of us is in the habit of back-shooting. Any last words?" So many curses, so many insults and defiant exclamations ran through Johnny's mind he couldn't settle for only one. He willed his tears to dry and glared up at his killer with seething rage. Becker thumbed back the hammer and took aim. "I guess not." A hole appeared in Becker's head as he fell backwards amid the crack of a gunshot. The other three Red-Legs did the same as bullets riddled their bodies. Johnny's mind scrambled to comprehend his burst of good fortune. Footsteps approached from behind and he remembered the rumors of Rebel guerrillas in these woods. The kind face of an older, graying man appeared above him.

"You alright there, son?" the man asked. Darkness engulfed the world.

In what seemed an instant the warm glow of a campfire shone through the darkness. Johnny felt his weakness and knew better than to try and sit up. Shifting his weight slightly, he moaned as the searing pains returned to his shoulder and side. Felt the cloth wrapped around his neck, shoulder, and waist; sticky with his own blood. In seconds the older man's face shone above him in the firelight. "Don't try to move, son," he gently ordered. "You've been through quite the ordeal."

"Shoot! Not nearly the ordeal them Red-Legs went through," chuckled a younger voice. A scrawny figure came into view beside the older man. His skin looked tight and leathery and his voice betrayed hard living, harder than most. "Took them on single-handed, you did! Took down all but four! My kinda man!" he finished with a wink and a high-pitched giggle. Johnny wasn't sure he liked this one.

"We heard-tell of what happened in the town," a gruff voice said moments before a bearded man approached. Johnny figured he was a few years older than him. "Sorry about your woman, kid. Them Red-Legs ain't got no honor."

"Thanks," Johnny sighed.

"Don't worry, Doc says you'll be alright," the bearded man said with a nod to the older man. "I'm Jackson, this here is Carver," he nodded to the scrawny man, whose continued look of mindless glee was starting to make Johnny nervous. "You'll get to know the rest of us in time. Doc's got a wagon, tomorrow we'll load you with the supplies and bring you along. Got us a bigger camp in Missouri, you can convalesce there. When you're better you're free to join us. The Cause could use a man with grit and spirit."

"Shoot! This one's almost as good at killing Yanks as I am!" Carver cackled. "Be an honor having you, friend! Got a name, don't you?"

"Johnny Grey."

"Shoot! Welcome to the war, Johnny Grey!" Carver said with a slightly warmer burst of laughter.

"Alright, let the man sleep," Doc huffed, shooing the other two away and lifting a blanket off of Johnny to check his bandages. "About time to change them. Don't worry, I've patched up every one of these roughnecks at least once. Seen plenty worse than this and some of them even lived to tell the tale! You'll be alright," he assured before turning to reach into a bag and produce a roll of bandages.

Johnny let his head fall back on the rolled up jacket that was his pillow. It seemed he was in the war now, whether he liked it or not. And for the South, whether he liked it or not. He almost laughed at the bitter irony of it. He wasn't for the South! At all! He was a Union man who had voted for Lincoln! He despised slavery and felt the South's cause was one of elites fighting for their rights to lord over all! Of course he concluded to keep such sentiments to himself. If these guerrillas knew what had happened in the town earlier, everyone did! Word would spread to other towns and soon the newspapers would be running headlines like "Rebel Renegade, Johnny Grey, Guns Down Patriots in Cold Blood." It only took half her tribe siding with the Confederates to seal Claire's fate. The public's mind would soon be made up about Johnny. Who was he to argue?

The End

James Burke was born in Illinois in 1987. After serving in the Navy he went to college and graduated with his Bachelor's Degree in History in 2016. He has written various short stories since 2017 and has self-published the e-book anthology The Warpath: American Tales of East, West, and Beyond. He lives with his wife in Greenville County, South Carolina.

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